Reflections on Teaching Ethics

Dr. Brandon Cooke, Associate Professor of Philosophy, taught an Honors section of Introduction to Ethics in spring semester. Below, he reflects on teaching ethics to Honors students. 

“So, what’s your philosophy?”  It’s an occupational hazard of being an academic philosopher that strangers will ask this question when they find out what you do, especially when you are trapped and have to be pleasant, like when you’re on a plane or at a wedding reception.  People mean well when they ask this question.  It’s just that they don’t know enough about philosophy to know that the kind of answer they want—something short, witty, and deep—will fail to be all of those things if it even remotely resembles your professional thinking.  It is said that the great philosopher Immanuel Kant took “Sapere aude” (“Dare to know”) as his motto, but as inspiring as that is, it hardly does justice to Kant’s transformative and immense body of work.

My favorite answer to the question comes from the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah (who visited MSU a few years ago): “Everything is more complicated than you think it is.”  As a slogan it has some important virtues: it is true, it is short enough not to be boring, and it opens the door to a more extended dialog.   I like to approach teaching ethics with this answer in mind, because ethics is something most psychologically healthy adults think they have a pretty good grasp of, even though surprisingly few people can give a reasonable justification for the views that they have.  And it’s something that is very important to reflect well on, because there are many ways to get it wrong, and the consequences of doing so can be severe.

The fundamental questions that structured our course are deceptively simple: What makes a life good?  What must I do?  How should I live?  Before we looked at different answers to those questions, we had to clear away some common but misguided ways of thinking about ethics.  In particular, we had to see that ethical judgments are more than mere expressions of individual preference, and not simply equivalent to claims about what is accepted or rejected in particular cultures.  In other words, when it comes to ethical judgment, I could be wrong, you could be wrong, and sometimes we all might be wrong.  One important and surprising result from this is that respecting difference and being open-minded (two very good things) means rejecting the idea that one set of values is just as good as any other.  Everything is more complicated than you think it is.

In thinking about what makes a life good, we saw that being happy and getting what you want can be important, but that as ideals of the good life, these two are fatally flawed.  The good life, we saw, is one that includes happiness, but also some other goods such as knowledge, autonomy, and accomplishment, and these might actually cause unhappiness.  Yet we still would not rate a life without these very highly.

In thinking about what we must do and how we should live, we turned to John Stuart Mill, Kant, and Aristotle (among others), who all were in one way or another struck by the poor quality of ethical thought manifest in ordinary thinking, and by the limitless capacity of homo sapiens to justify bad behavior.  These three certainly made mistakes of their own, but the ethical theories they developed are still very appealing conceptual frameworks for thinking about right and wrong, and good and bad.  All of them help us to see that the idea of ethical values being independent of our individual or cultural preferences is not a crazy or mysterious one at all.  And one of the most powerful uses of such an ethical framework is that we can examine our own cultural practices and see where they are confused or pernicious.  Does this way bring about as much well-being as possible, compared to anything else we could do?  Does this treat everyone affected with the respect they are owed simply in virtue of what they are?  And does this make sense from the standpoint of a choiceworthy, fully realized human life?

It is easy enough to direct those questions on things like Naziism and slavery.  It’s much harder to turn those questions onto practices that are deeply embedded in our own way of life.  We finished the semester by thinking about factory farming and football.  Are these things ethically defensible?  These topics seemed to cause more discomfort than any of the others we examined.  Some students answered no for both of these, but many did not.  That said, my sense was that even those who thought that factory farming and football were completely above ethical criticism could see these positions weren’t the default ones, that holding them meant responding thoughtfully and honestly to some rather difficult arguments.   Everyone in the course certainly learned that everything—even those things that are part of the cultural air we breathe—is more complicated than most people think it is.

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